Six F Word readers discuss Ariel Levy’s influential book on ‘raunch culture’ and the women who support it. Discussion by Marianne Lemond, Abby O’Reilly, Sheryl Plant, Holly Combe, Jessica Bateman and Catherine Redfern.
I haven’t had chance to actually read the book yet, but I’ve got an assumption of what it’s all about, which may or may not be accurate. I get the impression that it is about young women who willingly buy-in to and support the so-called “raunch culture” or mainstreaming of pornography in mainstream society, and that presumably, this is a shocking, bad thing for women and for feminism (hence the ‘female chauvinist pigs’ title). Is this what is Levy actually getting at? What’s the main message of the book in your view?
You are right when you say the book is about young women buying into, enjoying and supporting raunch culture and how this has a negative effect on women and feminism. It also questions the notion that raunch culture is empowering to women. I have male relatives who often say that women who pose naked for a lot of money are exploiting men and their baser instincts and thus, how can it not be an empowering thing for women. It’s funny how it is always men who make this argument, them and Abi Titmuss.
What I actually find most interesting about Levy’s book is the way she exposes how much our culture still reveres masculinity. Women’s entry into the workforce hasn’t led to a more feminised society as many critics argue. Rather, for women to succeed, they have to aspire to be like ‘men’. As Levy points out, TV shows like Sex and the City which supposedly promoted female empowerment, revolved around the idea that single women could and should behave like men, everywhere from the office to the bedroom. The whole ‘ladette’ culture involved women drinking, swearing and behaving wildly like ‘men’. Thus, masculinity equals strength, independence and adventure whereas femininity equals weakness, passivity and dependence. When Samantha, the wild, sexually ‘liberated’ woman in Sex and the City is described as being like a man, it’s a compliment.
In contrast, when a man is described as being ‘such a woman’, it’s an insult – behaving like a woman means being weak and pathetic. The fact that women are allowed to act like men (to an extent) but men aren’t allowed to behave in a ‘feminine’ way without facing ridicule doesn’t prove that women are more liberated and that men are now oppressed as some critics claim. Rather it shows how much ‘masculinity’ is still revered over ‘femininity’. However, whilst women may be allowed to act like men to a certain extent, they are not supposed to forget that they are still just women. The prominence of raunch culture is a constant reminder of women’s ‘real’ role. As Levy says,
Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will still always be like a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too.
So the book is about how women are unquestioningly embracing this mainstream culture, but isn’t it true that most women have always followed what mainstream culture demands of them in many areas of life (e.g. complying with mainstream beauty standards, taking her husband’s name, etc)? So what’s new here, or what has changed making this issue particularly worthy of comment?
I would say Levy’s intent is to remind us how far we women have to go in achieving recognition of us as equal sexual beings. The issues she highlights aren’t really anything new and I guess that’s her whole point: there are people out there in the media who would have us believe that this is it, we’re there now and eveything’s hunky dory. Certainly, I am in agreement with Levy that this is not the case.
It is true that feminists have pointed out before how women will internalise the roles that mainstream society tells them to, so in terms of women’s issues it’s not really saying too much that’s new, but it is more a critique of consumer culture, big business and the impact they have on us personally, in a similar vein to Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Levy is concerned with the particular impact that consumerism has on our ideas about sexuality, in particular female sexuality. What is new here is that it’s not a book that is just anti-sexist but one that is also anti-consumerist.
Is her issue with ‘raunch culture’ not that women are being publicly sexual but that the sort of public displays of sexuality they are taking part in are those which are totally focussed on heterosexual men’s pleasure, and therefore not “genuine” female sexuality (whatever that is)?
Although ‘raunch culture’ is deemed as being ‘post- feminist’ (and some would argue the natural progression and development of feminism in order to appeal to the MTV generation) it doesn’t seem to denote anything other than a return to traditional modes of objectification, with the ‘female chauvinist,’ as Levy remarks, asking: ‘Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving – or getting – a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you could join them?’
This sentence, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate the whole ethos of ‘raunch culture,’ with its overly reductive take on gender relations functioning to do nothing but undermine the achievements of women who, in days past, were willing to sacrifice their way of life in order to remain true to their beliefs and principles, and to pave a way for their daughters and granddaughters to have a political voice, only for this to be completely denigrated in favour of a boob job, a thong, and some girl-on-girl action to please the lads.
Having spent time with the production team of ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ a lot of who were female, Levy showed the difficulty inherent in trying to dissolve these reductive belief systems, with the female organisers of this show (which is designed largely to propagate nothing more than the male masturbatory fantasy of nubile, young teens and twenty-something scantily clad and gesticulating on celluloid), attempting to justify their involvement with some credibility by actually claiming what they are doing is showing feminism in action!
At the same time as these women interpret their self-deception as a form of empowerment, you have the women who occupy professionally powerful positions (such as the TV executives and producers) who are willing to exploit women, and those women who happily conform to the image of the archetypal male fantasy, baring all under the premise of being empowered. This is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Levy’s investigation, since it demonstrates a complete loss of female solidarity, which was obviously integral to the success of historical feminist campaigns. Here you have women emulating the behaviour of men in order to try and gain professional success and kudos through the degradation of those who are not strong enough to question the patriarchy, and so have opted to change their way of thinking about their objectification rather than actually doing something to change the status quo. Whereas first wave and second wave feminist were working together in order to try and achieve a specific goal, what Levy is showing is that in the present this push for equality has become fragmented because women are harbouring such different perceptions of how they should tackle gender inequality and see each other, to some extent, as the enemy.
Take someone like Katie Price, and her pin-up alter-ego Jordan for example, who seems to be the manifestation of both these facets of ‘raunch culture.’ She dresses provocatively and physically she has surgically enhanced her body in order to appeal to a male audience. But, on the other hand, she’s obviously an individual possessing some degree of business acumen, and has thus made a lucrative career for herself through the exploitation of her body, something she now concedes to more than willingly (take the recent launch of her underwear range, for example), whether or not when she embarked on this career at seventeen she was fully aware of the implications of what she was doing (which she probably was not).
To say that rolling around, breasts akimbo is empowering is an easier alternative than to fighting in the same way as our predecessors, especially when it can prove to be so financially beneficial, which is part of the problem. Sex sells, and it’s unlikely Jordan’s thinking about the damage she may or may not be doing to the feminist cause as she laughs all the way to the bank, and this is the problem Levy is highlighting; women are creating their own stylised methods of surviving in this patriarchal society, be that as ‘female chauvinist pigs’ or as commodities of the sex industry to be exploited, and so they are slowly but surely chipping away at the feminist desire for equality and credibility as they are failing to work together.
I do completely understand the frustration Abby is describing and the point that Levy is making. However, it also prompts me to consider exactly why we are STILL in a position where the work of our feminist mothers and Grandmothers can be denigrated by some women’s engagement with raunch culture.
I say this because, in my opinion, society should be moving in a direction where gender stereotypes have been obliterated, with the result that we all (i.e both sexes) are enabled to do whatever we want with our own bodies AND still receive respect as equal human beings. I realise that in the current climate this might seem to be a somewhat ludicrous and unrealistic statement to make, but this simply shows how far we still have to go in destroying gender stereotypes and achieving true freedom. I’d say the problem here is that society still denigrates any behaviour traditionally associated with “femaleness” (one of which is to readily make a sex object of oneself). Meanwhile, it is assumed that heterosexual men do not have any desire to objectify themselves in such a way and are somehow hardwired to only ever be the consumers of such “raunchy” displays.
I’m not suggesting that we should be focussing our feminist energies on “turning the tables” on men, merely that “objectification” (as I understand it) is only dehumanising when it excludes all other possibilities. Ultimately, I think society needs to actively open up everything it has come to know as “male” and “female” and I suspect a greater variety of sexual activity (encompassing all preferences regarding power dynamics, including those that reject the fetishisation of them) would be facilitated by such a shift.
Of course, all this leads to the question of exactly how we can balance things out and persuade men to cooperate with such egalitarian goals and I would argue that it is precisely this dilemma that leads some of us to say a big final “no more” to anything that could be perceived as “raunch”.
We seem to pessimistically believe that under the current scheme of things, our engagement or enjoyment of what is ultimately just one limited representation of sexuality will launch us ever further into stereotypical territory where our displays have no hope of being reciprocated because men will never play along with us when they are called upon to pander to any visually motivated whims we might have.
How can we encourage men who are genuinely orientated towards a so-called “feminine” role to not be swayed away from it if we too, as feminists, denigrate any kind of behaviour that has been traditionally associated with “femininity”? And how can we persuade men, in general, to do their fair share in “pleasing” behaviour if we go along with the idea that anyone who enjoys certain forms of sexual passivity or sexual display is degrading themselves? (I’d say exactly the same principle applies to the sharing of domestic labour and jobs stereotypically seen as “feminine”.)
I’d say this all links up to the point Marianne made about Levy’s criticism of the way our culture still reveres masculinity and the way that “women are allowed to act like men (to an extent) but men aren’t allowed to behave in a ‘feminine’ way without facing ridicule”. For women, I think one of the unfortunate results of this is that teenagers have been taking on some of the crappier aspects of male heterosexual culture (i.e the competitive “bednotches” element), without any significant emphasis on the good part (i.e the imperative to get off or, to put it another way, the active desire for sexual gratification). I think the following passage in the book (about the interviewee, Anne) demonstrates this:
…sex was something you did to fit in more than something you did for pleasure. “It’s an ego thing. We talk about it like at lunch on the patio; people think it’s cool. It’s competitive: who can hook up with the most guys and who can have sex… (pp154)
This reminded me very much of the bravado surrounding sex that seemed to be expected of girls when I was at school. Sex was often framed as something that happened to you. There was a real pressure to show you had “got on with it” and lived to tell the tale and there was even an air of gruesomeness about some of the stories that were proudly recounted. In contrast, I generally heard far less reference being made to boy’s sexual techniques and, even more significantly, masturbation was only rarely admitted to. It seemed we were, in the words of Deborah Tolman, expected to develop a sexual identity that left our own sexuality out (pp163); a real demand for the kind of sexless sexiness that one of Levy’s interviewees, Rachel, alludes to when she says that watching the raunchy Robyn Bird show doesn’t turn her on and that it’s “just for humour” (pp97).
I was also reminded of such blandness when Levy quotes Hugh Hefner’s description of the clean, happy, seemingly uncomplicated and somewhat Stepford Wife-like Playboy Bunny ideal, when explaining why he chose the rabbit as the symbol of his empire (and, yes, I can indeed understand why it “made feminists want to throw up”(pp57)). As Levy says, women are presented as “ornamental entertainment” rather than “partners in wildness.”
Hefner’s comments about not wanting his daughter to be promiscuous are indicative of such double standards and, unfortunately, this seems to have lived on, with women still being judged according to the virgin-whore dichotomy. One particular shift, as I see it, is that the central question is often now “do you do anal?” rather than the more general “do you put out?” Such silly questioning, in my view, is yet another ludicrous way of reducing women to a rigid 2-dimensional standard, as it fails to consider the simple idea that some women do enjoy anal sex (if and when they so desire) but that this doesn’t mean they’ve signed on the dotted line to surrender ownership of their arses and thereby commit themselves to a sex-life that revolves around hard and relentless bumming with whoever demands it from that day on. Sadly, it seems the reductive “some girls do-some girls don’t” mentality lives on!
What is most frightening about Ariel’s book is how in many ways I have found myself succumbing to our raunch culture. Whenever a male friend has FHM in the house I feel an itching to look at it, to look at the women’s bodies myself, even though I’m straight and have no lesbian tendencies at all. I want to look at the High Street honey’s and think how pictures of me could do a better job. Then I pull myself together, realise what I’m doing and walk away. Nevertheless, the itching is there, almost like it is ingrained and I can’t help it.
I don’t think it’s anti feminist to want to take pride in your appearance but it’s a tough call, where do you draw the line between wanting to be attractive for yourself and becoming a sexual object? For example, I wear extremely high heels, which I admit take quite a bit of skill to walk in and can cause an amount of discomfort. But I take a lot of pleasure in shoe shopping and wearing the shoes I buy. It certainly isn’t for men, my boyfriend rolls his eyes as soon as I even start to say the word ‘shoe’.
Her comments on Paris Hilton made me whoop with joy, I have felt for a very long time that Paris is a little blonde Barbie doll who is a terrible sexual role model for young girls. But currently, she is the only role model we have. Isn’t it a bit weird that our main sexual role model for women is someone who doesn’t even like sex (yes, I have seen that video and yes, she looked incredibly bored) and openly admits in interviews that she refrains from sex ‘because guys much prefer a girl who doesn’t do it straight away.’ What about what women want in bed? That’s always what should come first. It’s always good to please your partner in the bedroom but not at the extent of yourself, which of course is what dear Paris is advocating.
Yes, I definitely think there is a culture for looking at women’s bodies that seems to have very little to do with real sexual urges and far more to do with consumer culture and the buying into of a “raunchy” image. I also think a particularly confusing issue here is telling the difference between genuinely getting some kind of enjoyment out of those images as something even vaguely “sexy” and just responding as a consumer of those images because they’re around us all the time and it has become a habit.
I agree with Sheryl that it’s very easy to be sucked into that culture, as I think a lot of the bland titty-mag stuff seems like a bit of a ya-boo-sucks to feminism and a way of alienating women. Because of this perception, I’d say the last thing I want to do is play into the hands of the sexists who seek to exclude me. That, in itself, makes me curious to check out the scene, so to speak, and try to assess it objectively. I want to know it and understand where it’s coming from, without reacting in the kind of way that seems to positively delight the more sexist purveyors of women’s bodies in this particular limited context. It’s not without its pitfalls but I do think it’s possible to look through FHM without copping out and just drawing the kind of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” conclusion that I’d say Levy is criticising.
Having said that, I do do understand your discomfort about looking at the High Street Honeys in a potentially competitive manner, as we all know there are plenty of sexists who just love the idea of women getting distracted from pesky old feminism and criticising each other’s bodies (as “rivals”).
While I agree that Paris Hilton’s possible approach to sex leaves much to be desired (literally!), I also don’t think it’s a great move for us to hold her up as the ultimate bad example. This is because, again, it seems to give critics of feminism the opportunity to pitch women against each other, mis-framing feminists as judgemental puritans whose main pet hate is any woman who has dared to make sexual choices that are deemed unacceptable according to feminist values.
Throughout the book, Levy talks to young women who admit that their sexual behaviour has more to do with seeking attention and raising their self-esteem than actually experiencing sexual pleasure. However, I think it’s dangerous to make generalisations about all women who partakes in ‘raunch culture’ from a few interviews. There is a chance that Levy’s analysis tars every woman who behaves in the ways that she critiques as merely victims, and is not open to the idea that perhaps some women do gain genuine pleasure from it.
Whilst I do agree with her analysis of raunch culture, I don’t wish to patronise grown women or undermine the choices they have made for themselves by assuming that every single one is a victim of patriarchal culture and none of them really enjoy what they do. I also think that she may perhaps be a little too rose-tinted-glasses-wearing in her examination of the second wave of feminism in comparison to today’s society. She laments ‘how did we end up here?’ in reference to popular culture today after tracing back the women’s movement, but I am not convinced that the majority of women in the sixties and seventies had the same experiences that she describes – especially poorer women, women from ethnic minorities and those with children and families. And despite the power of the women’s movement at the time, mainstream media and society was still disgustingly sexist, possibly even more so than today, so I don’t think it’s entirely justified of her to suggest that we’ve somehow gone downhill.
Although she quite rightfully points out that the version of sexuality is one that is consumer-driven, packaged up into something that can be easily advertised, branded and sold, it’s pretty fair to say that men are restricted and stereotyped by it almost as much as women. It is a culture that portrays women as meat and men as animals rather than us all as the varied, complex beings that we actually are. But then again, it is subtitled ‘women and the rise of raunch culture’, so any discussion of its impact on men is pretty irrelevant seeing as she never set out to analyse male behaviour in the first place!
I do agree with Jessica, it is dangerous to overgeneralise, however toward the very end of the book Levy does say that she has no complaint against women who do gain genuine sexual pleasure from “waxing their vaginas and having breast implants.” Then again, there is an element of mocking in her tone as if to suggest that they are manipulated into this enjoyment by our culture, neglecting to portray that we are all products/influenced of our society and our culture.
Levy says she wants to see “real” liberation but what does real liberation look like? Or, more precisely, isn’t it actually the case that true liberation for each individual will look different on the outside to others because, of course, we aren’t all the same? How can we challenge double standards in relation to high levels of sexual activity if any real voraciousness and sexual hunger is at risk of being written off as fake and any desire is taken to be purely for display? Certainly, like you, I picked up on Levy’s occasional “mocking tone” in relation to women who appear to embrace raunch. In these instances, I suspect Levy may actually be contributing to the problem rather than the solution.
In many ways I feel Levy has oversimplified her argument. On one level this does make the book more enjoyable, easier to read and so can reach a larger audience and not just highly educated feminists, something that many feminists have argued is needed to make the movement more accessible. But on another level, again where do you draw the line? At what point are we ‘genuinely’ enjoying our sexuality as women and at what point are we simply seeking attention from men? at what point are we being manipulated by our consumer culture? This is a very complicated and multifaceted issue. The issue of media influence is something scholars are still battling out and not something that can truly be tackled in a book of this size.
There was a particular section on race and I would be really interested to hear anybody elses comments on it. I found the particular section very confusing and was unsure as of the connection to the rest of the book. She discusses a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (pp104-108). The black man in the novel believes he oppression as a slave so thoroughly that he does not even need to be ‘shackled.’ Is this meant to be a analogy for womenkind today? That we believe in our oppression so much we happily act out the ways in which we are ‘shackled’? This was the only aspect of the book I found confusing and felt didn’t really link with the rest of the book. What do you all think?
I actually found this to be one of the most illuminating passages of the book. As I understand it, Levy uses the character of ‘Uncle Tom’, the black slave who not only obeys his master but loves him and strives for his love in return, as an example of a marginalised person deliberately conforming to the dominant’s group expectations of them in order to get ahead in some way. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the ‘George Harris’ character who ‘acts white’ in order to get ahead. In other words, he behaves like the dominant group in an (ultimately futile) attempt to penetrate their circle, to be accepted as ‘one of them’, and thereby acquire their power and status.
This seems to me to be a useful analogy for the women who consume and / or participate in raunch culture. On the one hand, there are the women who ‘Uncle Tom’ it to the top – those who try to conform to raunch culture’s ‘cartoon’ image of women (that is, by getting breast implants, wearing little clothing, kissing other girls for men’s attention etc). On the other hand, are women like the producers of The Man’s Show, who act like men in order to get ahead in the masculine world of business – they approve of and even consume raunch culture in order to prove that they are ‘one of the guys’. These are the women who will attend strip clubs and look at Playboy, and if they work in the entertainment business like Sheila Nevin, will actually produce shows about strippers and porn stars. In order to be accepted as ‘men’, they need to prove that they are not like ‘girly-girls’ who participate in raunch culture but that they still approve of men’s desire for these ‘girly-girls’.
There’s nothing new about marginalised groups trying to win the dominant group’s approval by either behaving like them or conforming to the stereotype of their group (as the fictional example of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, written in 1852, shows). As Catherine pointed out, there is nothing new about women conforming to mainstream ideas of beauty (the only difference is that whereas in the 1950s, women were posing in beauty pageants, now they are dressing and behaving like porn stars).
What is new about the Female Chauvinist Pig is that she tries to incorporate both strategies for winning men’s approval. She simultaneously aspires to be like a stereotypical man (acting tough and independent in order to distinguish herself from ‘girly-girls’ whilst still consuming images of these ‘girly-girls’) and a stereotypical woman (the very ‘girly-girls’ that the FCP disdains but supposedly enjoys looking at). As Levy says, the ‘task then is to simultaneously show that you are not the same as the girly-girls in the videos and the Victoria Secret catalogs, but that you approve of men’s appreciation for them, and that possibly you too have some of the same sexy energy and underwear underneath all your aggression and wit. A passion for raunch culture covers all the bases’.
The section on Uncle Tom was particularly enlightening because it showed that women, like ethnic minorities, are considered marginal facets of society because of their difference, their mutual status as the ‘other,’ in relation to the white, middle-class, heterosexual male, who has been a dominant social presence ever since he had nothing but a fig leaf to hide his modesty (as if society is split into two constituent parts, the aforementioned white man, and everyone else!).
With women attempting to emulate the behaviour of men, (or the way we have been conditioned to believe is a ‘male’ way to behave) not only by aspiring to reach equality professionally, but by the propagation of a ‘ladette culture’ whereby they drink to excess and use violence, they are aiming to try and achieve some mutual ground (even when that means imitating the negative masculine behaviour). However, this is never going to be successful, because it’s accepted that men can behave in this way because they are traditionally the more dominant social presence, which is why a woman can be called a whore and a slut if she chooses to indulge in no strings sex on a regular basis, whereas a man is virtual mythologized as modern day legend by his mates for doing the same thing.
There’s a section in the book (although my memory is not so good at this point, so forgive me if I’m slightly inaccurate) in which Levy talks to a man and a woman who both claim that a woman does not want to be friends with other women. In trying to act like men, women are attempting to achieve some sort of solidarity with them, although in reality they have been manipulated into thinking that this way gives them some sort of power, and in actual fact they are still being dominated by the men they are trying to emulate. No matter how alike a man may be to a woman, she will still be a woman, and therefore still considered by the dominant masculine culture as the weaker sex.
As some of you may have already pointed out and I think we are all in agreement on, Levy has one main point: even though we are told things have changed, that feminism has done it’s job, in reality, feminism hasn’t gone far enough and contrary to popular media opinion, getting our tits out for the lads doesn’t empower us at all. As she notes in the last chapter,
“Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven’t come…The freedom to be sexually provocative or promiscuous is not enough freedom; it is not the only ‘women’s issue’ worth paying attention to. And we are not even free in the sexual arena.”
A male colleague of mine whose girlfriend was a stripper once said to me that he didn’t understand what the fuss was about, his girlfriend earned an enormous amount of money (enough to pay her way through medical school) just by dancing about on a stage. She was obviously vastly intelligent, she enjoyed doing the job and saw it as an ideal way to keep fit. She, like Katie Price, as discussed previously, used raunch culture to her advantage and to further herself in her career, in this case medicine. So what is the problem?
Violence and abuse is generally the problem (the most horrific one at least.) As Levy points out when discussing Jenna Jameson and the porn industry, Jameson was gang raped as a teenager and domestically abused in a series of violent relationships. Levy also notes that the vast majority of women in the porn industry enter it poor and stay poor. Also between 65-90% of porn actresses and models are abused, either through their line of work or in their relationships outside of work. This may be because they are objects rather than people. Studies have shown that before killers/violent abusers commit a violent act they turn their victims into objects rather than feeling people, so in regard to porn models who are already treated as merely objects, it could be argued violence is inevitable. This lends extra weight to Levy’s comments that “there is something twisted about using a predominantly sexually traumatized group of people as erotic role models.” With the extension of raunch culture into our everyday lives, women become more and more objectified and thus it becomes unsurprising that, as statistics have shown, domestic violence has increased in previous years.
Levy could have discussed the impact of raunch culture on domestic violence and abuse in a lot more detail, she concentrates so much on the effect ranch culture has on female self esteem and female sexual roles that this incredibly important issue becomes almost forgotten. It was only in this dicussion of the porn industry did she touch on it. And even then, she was talking about violence in the industry, not in the ordinary woman’s home.
Abby talks about Levy drawing attention to the loss of female solidarity we’ve seen in women’s partaking and exploitation of raunch culture but, for me, concerns about female solidarity is actually something that would lead me to be particularly critical of the book. For example, Levy refers to talented, intriguing women who are labelled as being like men, saying that plenty of women don’t have a problem with this and “not everyone cares that this doesn’t do much for the sisterhood” (pp95). I completely agree with the point I think she’s making ( how can we possibly change society if we constantly denigrate our own sex by considering anyone impressive as somehow more “male”?) but, at the same time it does seem a little ironic
considering that her whole book seems to be based on her hanging out with women and then using what she has learned to conclude they are “pigs”! I’m not saying women should not criticise each other (far from it) but still can’t help wondering exactly what such a move really does for the sisterhood.
I also think Levy was a little unfair in her assessment of the Cake parties. As she says herself, it all seems to be some “garbled attempt at continuing the work of the women’s movement” (pp75) so there is, at least, some degree of feminist sentiments involved. I’d also suggest that there may well have been all manner of liberated things going on at the parties she observed but that she may have blinkered from seeing any of it because of the highly critical lens she was looking through.
Certainly, I do feel very defensive in the thick of all the current criticisms being levelled at “women who call themselves feminists” in the current debates, as it means anyone concerned with freedom of sexual expression as a feminist is at risk of being tarred with that particular brush. Ultimately, this doesn’t affect me too greatly as nothing in the whole world (not even outright rejection from some of my feminist peers) could ever make me denounce feminism but I do worry that women who might have only tentatively embraced the term in the first place would decide, once and for all, that feminism is actually an enemy to women’s liberation and thus cut short the potentially great things we could have all achieved together.
Does she focus on heterosexual women only, or does she address how raunch culture has affected lesbian/bi/queer communities?
I do think that there were definately missed opportunities for queer/ lesbian critiques of some of the women’s consumption of raunch culture. Levy talks to women who read FHM and visit strip clubs – they explain that it’s ‘just fun’ and that they are not sexually attracted to other women, and Levy just accepts this at face value without question. While we live in a society that is still rife with homophobia (and also says that women are not visually aroused, that it’s not ‘natural’), when you are interviewed by a journalist about what you do for pleasure there’s a fair chance that you will give the answer that you think is more socially acceptable than the one that is actually true.
Levy does discuss lesbians reaction to raunch culture in some ways in the chapter ‘from womyn to boi’s’ Admittedly it is not as comprehensive as it could be, and she more critiques the way in which some New York lesbians seem to simply take on a heterosexual mindset in the way they carry out their relationships. There are the ‘bois’ who take on characteristics of teenage boys, wearing baggy clothes, strapping down and even surgically removing their breasts, etc, and generally act with complete contempt toward the girly lesbians who act out femininity, and any form of long-term and loving relationship with them (they are still very happy to sleep with them though, remind you of anything?!). Levy includes a long quote form a particular ‘boi’ named Sarah, who says she believes gender is ‘fluid’ and interchangeable. But as Levy so rightly points out if gender is so fluid, then why is Sarah modifying her gender though surgery and testosterone? And why does she lament a family life with a wife and 2.4 children? It all sounded like a continuation of the status quo rather than an alternative. But I hope (and know) that not all queer communities are like this and Levy’s concentration on one particular community does limit her discussion.
I agree that Levy misses an opportunity to explore women’s consumption of raunch culture from a queer / lesbian critique. It’s often seemed to me that some straight women who kiss each other at parties for men’s attention are actually experimenting and exploring their same sex desires in a ‘safe’, heterosexual environment. Of course, I’m sure there are some who do it just to get men’s attention but perhaps it isn’t always as straightforward as Levy thinks. As she often interviewed the women in groups, some of them may have been afraid to express the real reasons for their behaviour.
There is a section where Levy describes homosexual women opting to have mastectomies to make themselves look more masculine in order to conform to heterosexual modes of thinking about relationships. This further devalues womens’ position, by aspiring to look like and act like a facet of society (men) that has kept us subjugated for the very fact that we are different to them, and this does nothing but bludgeon the feminist want for women to be given the credit and status they deserve. I think that essentially what Levy is trying to express is that the development of ‘raunch culture’ is an example of women betraying their own desires and attempts at achieving parity with men, something which needs to be addressed if we are to reach this equality on our own terms.
I work with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people and I have witnessed among the more ‘boyish’ lesbians (as far as I know the term ‘boi’ hasn’t yet entered the lesbian ‘slang’ in Britain) a disdain for more ‘feminine’ lesbians and anything that might be considered remotely ‘girly’. However, I think Levy fails to put this into context. The young ‘boyish-looking’ lesbians I work with have often spent their whole lives being criticised and sometimes terribly bullied for not being ‘feminine’ enough (the double standard of raunch culture of course is that whilst women may be allowed to behave like men, that is, drink like them, have sex like them, be successful at work like them, they should on no accounts ever try to look like them!). Therefore, when they enter the gay community and for the first time feel accepted, it’s not really surprising that they begin to revere this ‘masculinity’ that they identify with and look down on the ‘femininity’ that has always been forced on them until now.
I also think you have to be careful to distinguish between ‘boyish’ lesbians who just display ‘masculine’ traits and those who identify as transgender – ie. whose internal gender identity differs from their physiological gender. Transgender people tend to have a deep sense that their physiological gender doesn’t match their gender identity so saying that transgender men are just women who want to be like men because of the way raunch culture reveres masculinity is far too simplistic. Transgender people face enough criticism from mainstream society without feminists adding to it.
Is there a danger that the book would appeal to the more conservative anti-feminist reader who would shake their heads and tut-tut about the disgraceful behaviour of young women nowadays? In other words, is there is an element of old-fashioned shock about women being increasingly public about their sexuality?
I think you have a good point, that those with very conservative views could mis-interpret some points/ observations Levy makes as an opportunity to moralise about young women behaving in certain ways. But I think Levy herself is very aware of this throughout the text, and she returns again and again to stress that she wants to see REAL sexual liberation and empowerment as opposed to the phony, consumer driven kind that she is critiquing, as if to counteract anyone who could see her views as being puritan and anti-sex. I liked the way she traced the history of the women’s movement, in particular the fight for women’s sexual empowerment, as it de-bunks many of the myths in mainstream society about feminists being ‘anti-sex’.
I’ve definitely seen what Catherine describes happening. For example, I recently attended a talk about “raunch culture” in Bristol where one attendee voiced concerns about the underwear section in the latest Kays catalogue, saying “I’m not a prude but…” and then clearly describing the underwear as “not chaste” as if “chasteness” is somehow an issue on the feminist agenda! While I realise feminism covers a wide political spectrum and don’t wish to narrow it according to my agenda, I have to admit this comment filled me with fear. After all, isn’t the expectation that women should look “chaste” part of the historical suppression of female sexuality? Sure, I agree with Levy that there is a very narrow and superficial definition of “sexiness” being peddled as a commodity to us right now but is going back to the modesty tradition really the best way to combat it?
Having said all that, I guess this is one of the political dilemmas that is faced by anyone engaging in debates that touch on anything to do with sexual liberation, representation or expression: it’s an area where uncomfortable allegiances are often made. For example, as a civil libertarian and member of Feminists Against Censorship, I am involved in campaigns that are also supported by right wing libertarians with functionalist goals (eg freedom of advertising). This doesn’t exactly fill me with joy! Another example would be the way that some feminists are campaigning against pornography alongside right wing fundamentalists who they know have no interest in feminist goals but nonetheless happen share one particular aim (albeit for very different reasons). It’s a minefield, for sure.
Another particular fear I have with regard to where the raunch debate could potentially go is that I think it could fuel the stereotype that female desire is not the given that men’s is and that it is somehow lesser in comparison. Apart from leaving the male stereotypes as solid and powerful as they have ever been (the “men as animals” tradition that Jessica mentioned), it potentially places women’s sexuality under yet further suspicion.
I would say that, while I agree with Levy that we haven’t come far enough, I think it’s vital that we don’t lose the sexual freedoms we have gained so far by retreating into sexual conservatism because of our awareness that it isn’t enough but also feeling we’ve hit a wall in terms of how we can possibly move forward. In addition to this, I do wonder if the current onslaught on raunch culture will actually be used as just another way of regulating women’s sexuality. I have this stifling sense that, as women, we now have to deal with not only the limited representations of sexuality that Levy draws attention to but also the critics of it potentially policing our behaviour.
Ok, any final thoughts on the book overall?
I think a main strength of this book is that Levy is pushing the discussion of feminism into the mainstream. Her writing style is entertaining, humourous and accessible, and not at all reminiscent of the dense language that often characterises academic literature discussing feminism and gender relations. I think this reiterates the idea that this, the concept of ‘raunch culture,’ is something that needs to be addressed by all women, and is not something that should be isolated to only the niche of us who call ourselves feminists.
This is a very interesting, clever and more importantly, very entertaining book, not bogged down in terminology like some other feminist texts. It’s certainly vital reading for any follower of the feminist movement.
Levy’s lighthearted style is also a point for criticism as well as a positive aspect of the book. Her jokey and somewhat sarcastic style are very similar to lad mags ‘ironic’ jokes, and also over simplifies a very complex discussion. The book is not revolutionary, however this may be the point. Levy is pointing out how far we haven’t come and how much work is still yet to be done. As Marianne pointed out, the book illustrated how masculine traits are still revered over feminine traits by men and women of whatever sexual orientation. The book shows how the female is commodified and still treated as a sexual object, portraying the negative effects this commodification can have on a woman’s self esteem, how she identifies herself sexually and even her relationships at home in the form of domestic violence and abuse (although Levy doesn’t go into as much detail on this subject as I felt was needed.)
On various levels Levy demonstrates the twisted and contradictory environment that we live in, in one chapter she discusses how virginity is prised by the Bush government, that all the sex education American teens have is to be told not to have sex at all. Yet they live in a hyper commercial world obsessed with sex and porn stars. Also, what I think is most frightening about the book is when Levy discusses American teens as ‘pigs in training,’ especially Anna. Anna’s main investment in life is how sexy she looks for the boys. Yet her actual sexual experiences have been sufficiently lacking. As Levy points out herself, this so called irony surrounding women who take part in ‘Girls Gone Wild’ does not exist for young teens. She says:
on p.169, “none of this (Raunch Culture) can possibly be ‘ironic’ for teens because it’s their whole truth…If there is a way in which grown women are appropriating raunch as a rebellion against the constraints of feminism we can’t say the same for teens. They never had a feminism to rebel against.”
Another comment Abby made encapsulated the book very well, that this book is about how women are still struggling to survive in a patriarchal society and thus creating self-stylised ways of objectifying and degrading other women to make it to the top. Another issue surrounding the book is one of sister solidarity; Levy’s (and my own) criticism of Paris Hilton and her choices shows how the movement has become fragmented. We no longer have a core goal or any form of sister solidarity and this is what is needed to be regained if the movement is ever to gain the momentum to continue making the moves toward equality.
I think Levy’s book serves as a timely reminder that there is still much to be done towards achieving genuine sexual equality. We have yet to gain the collective freedom to be, as Levy puts it, our “own specific individual selves” and there are still pressures to play out what might be expected of us, purely for the sake of image or other people’s pleasure. One thing perhaps lacking is a detailed critique of how certain assumptions about male sexuality can hold everyone back. (The part where one interviewee, Annie, says she thought “yeah! Now I’m like a guy” (pp189) when she found herself able to have casual sex might have been a good opportunity.)
Having said that, I do think the book competently demonstrates, even to those amongst us who might have fears with regard to where the raunch debate could go, that we can’t ignore the power that one particularly limited and commodified representation of sexuality currently holds.
A message that is clear, as far as I’m concerned, is that we simply can’t afford to become complacent about the gains we’ve made so far because, if we do, there is a very real risk of going backwards rather than forwards. In fact, I guess this slant may be somewhat misrepresentative of Levy’s view, as in her words, true liberation is the “future that never happened” and, despite not wanting to dismiss the gains we have made so far, I do ultimately think she’s right.
This risk of going backwards is, in my view, directly connected to the issues of “irony” that Levy talks about on in chapter 5 (and Sheryl recently drew attention to). If certain representations are indeed the “whole truth” for many teenagers today, the space for the irony that would normally serve to show how far we’ve come is shrinking right in front of us, only to be replaced with a reality that actually isn’t liberating at all. One could certainly argue that today’s culture is genuinely harking back to yesterday’s gender roles (albeit in a more explicit context with the polite niceties and tokens of chivalry stripped away to reveal a misogyny in its
rawest form). When this happens it is actually a double irony, the irony being that it isn’t ironic at all. It is the culturally recognised “truth”.
Levy also seems to take a critical stance towards the arguably greater openness about sex that has developed within society. She rightly makes a stand in the book on the importance of sex education (criticising abstinence-only programmes) but this does seem somewhat contradictory when one considers that she says the following earlier on in the book:
“…even though this world of beer and babes feels foreign to sixties revolutionaries, it is actually also a repercussion of the very forces they put in motion- they are the ones who started this.” (pp 45)
I’m not sure what her point is here. If, as I hope, she is simply saying that restrictive forces have twisted the greater sexual openness that the sixties revolutionaries made a stand for, I agree wholeheartedly. If she is saying the removal of certain taboos has been taken from a context of earnest liberation into a place of sexism and double standards, then, again, I agree. I just think the point needs to be made clearer so that it doesn’t seem as if Levy is just harking back to pre-sixties sexual morality. Then again, maybe she is doing that to some extent and I just don’t want to believe it. There is another section in chapter one where she talks about a “recent spate” of X-rated books “not sheepishly tucked away in the Erotica section”. I mean what’s the alternative? Tuck them away again?
Overall, however, I found the book a genuinely insightful commentary on the potential dupes that exist in popular culture. While, like Marianne, I don’t want to patronise grown women or ignore their agency and ability to see through such representations (or take what they want from it without negating their own pleasure), this book has also helped me to appreciate the power of a specific part of consumer culture that, in itself, is as hollow as most of the rest of what comes out of that particular machine.
I would have liked Levy to consider what role race plays in raunch culture. For example, I would have thought that raunch culture would be doubly disempowering for black women seeing as they have traditionally been portrayed as dangerously ‘sexual’ by racist white male culture. Considering that some black male rappers’ videos are often barely disguised porn shows, I wonder if black men have sometimes objectified black women in order to assert their own masculinity and power which has in the past been denied to them by white men. As I mentioned before, I also think Levy’s analysis of the way raunch culture has insinuated itself into the lesbian community is perhaps the weakest part of the book.
Finally, I would have liked Levy to have written a bit more about how we can counter raunch culture. As a few other people have pointed out, there is a danger that the feminists’ critique of raunch culture will be hijacked by conservatives who condemn any overt sexual behaviour by women and want to return to a time where women were ‘chaste’ and ‘modest’. We also need to be careful that this debate doesn’t just turn into a ‘slanging’ match with critics of raunch culture on the one side and so-called ‘female chauvinist pigs’ on the other as this will just contribute to the disintegration of female solidarity that Levy laments (and is exactly what patriarchal society wants).
The only potential solution I can see lies in improving sex and relationships education for adolescent girls. Whilst sex and relationships education in Britain is a million times better than in America (at least our teachers aren’t promoting abstinence as the best contraception!), schools could be doing a lot more to help young women understand their bodies and sexual desires so that they don’t just see sex as something that is done to them for men’s sexual pleasure. Schools, youth projects and teenage girls’ magazines all have a responsibility to encourage teenage girls to critically analyse the media’s obsession with raunch culture and learn how to distinguish between their own desires (sexual and otherwise) and what this culture tells them is desirable / sexy etc. I also think that it isn’t exactly healthy or constructive for young men to be brought up to see women as just sexual objects for their own consumption. Schools, youth projects and the media need to present them with an alternative framework in which to understand their burgeoning sexuality.
There you go! Thanks everyone for such an interesting debate.